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The War Nerd / January 19, 2009

I’ll talk about Gaza tomorrow, but I’ve got the day off and it’s not my idea of a good time. For now I’ll just say it turned out exactly like I said it would, but blecch, it’s not my idea of a good time and I’m not in the mood to gloat too much. So I’m going to purposely change the subject to this note I wrote myself on the way to work last week: “Supertrooper??? Not mil. @ all!! Column on misused mil. Lyrics”

What I meant to remind myself of there was to do a column on the need to pass a law against civilians using military language in their lyrics. Exhibit A here is those pacifist Swedes Abba, who got famous on a song called “Waterloo,” which I looked up once a long time ago and found it wasn’t about the battle at all. Naturally it’s about some personal-relationship deal, which is all those people have left now that Europe’s been gutted. As near as I can figure, the “Waterloo, finally facing my Waterloo” line means she’s about to give some Scandinavian guy what he wants, and she doesn’t really sound that sorry about it. But she’s pretending it’s a big defeat. Why? It’s not even honest.

For some reason every radio station on the dial now plays these Abba songs at commuter hours. Women taking over, I guess. They like this stuff. Which would be fine if Abba didn’t have this disgusting habit of taking decent military language and making it all obscene with this personal-relationship take. Like “Super troopers, lights are gonna find me” is one of them. I almost liked that at first because it reminded me of the beginning of Terminator, the flying death machines searching out the last humans while their automated tanks crunch over all the skulls left over from the big zap. That was such a beautiful scene, but if you listen to the song, the next line ruins everything. It goes “Super trooper, lights are gonna find me/But I won’t feel blue…” That was where it started to go wrong for me. How can you not feel blue if the death machines are hovering over you and their big spotlights have you picked out like one of those idiots who try to outrun the choppers on a cop show? It’s not like an optional feeling, Swedish lady. If SkyNet is about to bring you death from above, you pretty much have to feel blue unless you’re high, which these people probably were when they wrote this stuff in the 1970s.

But it turns out she’s not talking about warfare at all. She’s talking about some fan, or boyfriend-slash-fan I guess, because the next line says the reason she won’t feel blue is “Cuz somewhere in the crowd there’s you.” Now that really, really made me sick. In other words, by “trooper” she means like, “you’re a real trouper,” that line actors and other show people use on each other. So there’s no military application at all. And worse yet, she’s thanking her little boyfriend for standing out there in the crowd while she’s on center stage, getting all the attention. That’s not right. Not unless you’re Ike Turner maybe and you’ll take it out on her once you’re backstage.

So what I do when I come across these misapplications of military terminology on the car radio when I’m stuck in traffic is fix the lyrics for them. I actually tried to work out a better way to do the “Super Trooper” scenario last Thursday. What would a real guerrilla do if he had to deal with aerial surveillance by armed tracker-choppers? The last thing you’d want to do is shoot it out with them, unless you’ve got a stinger: “Super trooper, lights are gonna find me/But I’ve got a sting/This handy shoulder-fired thing….” But if you’ve got a stinger you’re one lucky guerrilla. Most of them have to make do with the usual kit, AKs and RPGs. In that case what you’d want to do is scatter in the short term, and in the long term, circle around and look for a soft target that would cripple or demoralize the air crews. So it would be more like “Super trooper, lights are gonna find me/But I’ll overrun their base/wipe the smiles right off their families’ face.”

I’m probably missing a lot of other songs most people know, like metal stuff. There are probably a million heavy metal songs about war, but I don’t really want to know because it’ll all be ignorant woofing, blood and guts, stoner babble. I stay away from most music because I don’t want to even know about that stuff. Ever since I was a kid, I stuck with the old songs. My favorite LP, that I played until the grooves were worn out, was one my parents got me for my birthday, “Songs of the Civil War.” I used to know every line of every song on that record, even when I had no idea what they were talking about. You could tell they were real soldiers’ songs because they were sort of cheerful and casual about it all: “Lay down boys and take a little nap/They’re kickin’ up a fuss in the Cumberland Gap.” That’s more like an enlisted man’s take on real war: the main thing is to get any sleep you can. But there’s that sort of echo of the big battles, if you know anything about the Cumberland Gap. Then there were the hardcore back-to-back songs from the North and South, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie.” I learned a lot about how the war worked in terms of propaganda from listening to those two songs. I don’t mean I figured it all out, because I was a slow, heavy kid who didn’t come up with bright remarks much. But it settled down into my brain and I knew the difference between North and South from the words to those songs. The North was pure New England righteousness, like the Bible with a bayonet on it, and anybody who gets in the way is gonna get cut. Even the title says that: “Battle Hymn.” You don’t find Quakers putting those two words together. All those punk and metal bands coming up with titles with military and religion in one name—they’re all just copying this song. I could imagine the boys in blue walking to the slaughter up Marye’s Heights to the tune of that unforgiving Congregationalist tune. That was when I liked God, in that song:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on.

God damn, if the church had stuck with that version I’d still be in good standing. No mercy, just the tank treads crunching over skulls. I didn’t get it—see, that’s the point I’m trying to make here, kids don’t have to “get” the whole thing to smell, sort of, what’s going on. These parents you see who won’t let their kids watch anything that isn’t dumbed-down, they’re ruining their kids. Kids need to work on stuff that’s way over their heads. That’s how you get better. You think I “got” all the military histories I read as a kid? I didn’t understand half of what I was reading, and people laughed at me and said I was faking it, but I got enough to keep going, and it gave me a reason to get better.

Same thing with these lyrics. I didn’t figure out till later that the vineyard line comes from the New Testament and also probably temperance agitation, but I liked “trample.” As long as they were trampling it was OK with me. This wasn’t the Jesus they talked about on Sunday, your hippie nerd victim, this was the God of William Tecumseh Sherman and George Thomas. “His terrible swift sword.” “Fateful lightning.” Rolling on, over all resistance, all that justified wrath.

And then opposite that, there was “Dixie.” I mean, that’s one of the most beautiful songs ever. That’s the point. There’s no argument to it, like there was no real argument for the South, but you can see why they’d walk into minie balls anyway, listening to that slow “look away” part.

Wish I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten

Like I said, I didn’t “get” the song like a grownup would, but it seeped into my head, the main point: old times there are not forgotten, it’s where you’re from, it doesn’t have to be logical or justified, it’s a place, a way of doing stuff. And you’d die for that. So just sitting there in the heat in Bakersfield with the trucks going by outside and my sister banging on the door, I’d play those two anthems back to back over and over, and believe me, I got that war: the enlisted men slacking off whenever they could and then fighting like devils, the prissy New England officers dying like flies for a god like a temperance lady with a stick up her ass, the southerners not in the mood to argue and not that good at it anyway, so they’d rather settle it the way Preston Brooks answered Charles Sumner on the floor of Congress. Sumner was so impressive and perfect and full of New England righteousness that he could’ve written “Battle Hymn of the Republic” himself, and he must have been sickening to be around, he was so in the right. He made a speech saying what a bunch of slave-owning scum the South was, which was all true, except it was their Dixie he was talking about, so Preston Brooks, this sort of Jeff Davis-lite looking guy, decided to make a witty reply with his cane. He beat Sumner mostly to death while Sumner was trapped at his desk, with one of his pals, a sleazy Lynyrd Skynyrd guy named Keitt holding everybody off with a pistol.

It was all there in the two songs. Nobody could answer all that righteousness; you either killed it or surrendered. That was like the background, the big picture, to all the other songs on that record. The rest was pure ant’s-eye view, the stuff that worried the guys left to sort it out, die or get maimed or come home heroes: scoring some loot (“eating goober peas”), feeling bad about mom (“Just Before the Battle”) and getting some shuteye while they kicked up a fuss in the Cumberland Gap.

That was America, that was the best time. And you want me to talk about Gaza? Blecch. I’ll get around to it, but give me a Monday off to swim around in a better war.

Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to

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